Tips for identifying information influence activities – Be vigilant and act responsibly

Information security now!

Over the course of a single day, we encounter an enormous number of different messages, with numerous operators employing various methods to vie for our attention. How, then, can you evaluate the reliability of the information provided in these messages? What should you pay attention to when reading a social media post and deciding whether to share it, for example? What are information influence activities?

We have compiled a number a tips focusing on this topic below. For those interested in learning more, we recommend reading Countering Information Influence Activities – A Handbook for Communicators (External link) (External link) published by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) (in Finnish) and Guidelines for Enhanced Government Communications: Communications under Normal Conditions and during Incidents (External link) (External link) published by the Prime Minister’s Office of Finland, which provides information for organisations on how to prepare for and respond to information influence. These guides are applicable to non-governmental operators as well.

What are information influence activities?

Information influence activities are nothing new per se, as various parties have been engaging in them throughout human history. What has changed are the techniques and technologies used for them. Today, there are numerous governmental and non-governmental operators engaging either willingly or unknowingly in information influence activities on behalf of national governments as well as various organisations, associations, groups and individuals coordinating these activities. The methods and techniques used for information influence activities are likewise numerous and often combined with each other in various ways.

In Finland’s Central Government Communications Guidelines and Guidelines for Enhanced Government Communications: Communications under Normal Conditions and during Incidents, information influence activities are defined as systematic actions designed to influence public opinion, people’s behaviour and decision-makers and, through this, the functions of society. The methods of influence include dissemination of false or misleading information, exertion of pressure, and manipulative use of information that is in itself correct (by presenting facts out of context, for example). This is a strategic activity designed to mislead the target so that it makes self-damaging decisions or acts against its own best interests, often without being aware of this. It is important to keep in mind, however, that different opinions and views are an essential part of an open and democratic society. They do not constitute information influence activities.

Consider the big picture

What does digital source criticism entail? Here are some tips on things and perspectives that you should consider when evaluating the reliability of message content.

When presented with new content, for example, always consider the big picture. Read the text in its entirety before disseminating or sharing it. Keep in mind that simply reacting to a post (by liking, commenting on or sharing it) increases its visibility to other people. This is due to the operating logic of social media services: The more reactions a post receives, the more the service will recommend it to others. Be vigilant and act responsibly.

Think about how the text and any pictures or graphics accompanying it are designed to influence you. Is the message informative or argumentative; is it based on facts, feelings or opinions?

Think about why you noticed the message and what in the message drew your attention. Keep in mind that the numbers of likes or shares do not tell you whether the things presented in the message are true.

Consider the poster

Check when the poster’s profile was created and how often the account is used to post new content. For example, if the account was only created yesterday and has posted content every few minutes around the clock, it is highly likely to be an automated account instead of a real person.

Check the profile name and whether the associated profile picture seems real. Has the picture been repurposed from somewhere else, or is it computer-generated? Utilise the image search functions of search engines to check whether the picture has been used in other contexts, for example.

Consider the language used as well. Many operators utilise automated translations to spread messages in multiple languages, for example. When this is the case, the text can contain inconsistent sentences or clear grammatical errors.

What does the poster’s profile say about the poster? Can you find information about them elsewhere?

In the case of a website, check the address (URL). Spoofing well-known network addresses by altering them slightly, for example, is one of the methods used in information influence activities.

Consider the possible motive or goal of the poster.

Consider why the message was posted when it was. Could the date and time of posting be related to something?

What does the information content of the message seem like?

Verify the information or claim presented in the message from multiple sources, if necessary.

If the message references multiple sources, check the sources and determine the original source of the information. Evaluate whether the sources have been used correctly and in the right contexts.

If the message includes pictures, use the image search functionality of search engines to determine whether the pictures used in the profile or post have been previously used in other contexts.

Take care of your information security and privacy

Do you know how the social media service that you use functions? What is the underlying logic based on which the service presents content to you?

Are you aware of what you have agreed to in order to use a social media service? Are you familiar with the terms and conditions of the service?

Be careful about what kind of information about yourself, your family or friends you share on social media.

Be careful about accepting friend requests from people you do not know.

Take care of your privacy online. Check the privacy settings of the services and applications you use regularly.

Take care of your information security. Keep the devices and applications that you use updated.

Secure your telecommunications connections and devices. Take care of virus and malware protection.

Enable strong authentication (such as multi-factor authentication ) for all the services and applications that you use that offer it.

Act in a way that you do not need to be ashamed of your online presence. Assume that everything that you post (even in closed groups, for example) is public.